Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Colourful Victorian Childhood

I found a small card today that was being used as a bookmark in a rather dull memoir by a Victorian clergyman. It was between pages 26 and 27, suggesting that the reader hadn't progressed any further.

One side contained this cheerful image:

The other had this appeal for donations to the 'Incorporated Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays':

Emigration seems a rather extreme measure, but the average Victorian orphan would have probably fared better in the colonies than the damp, smog-ridden streets of the East End. 

The memoir with the Waifs and Strays slip turned out to be the first of a batch of Victorian books that included a selection of 'penny dreadfuls', a couple of titles by John Ruskin and a battered copy of a children's poetry collection from 1868.

As I picked it up, the poetry book fell apart in my hands. I tried to reassemble the pages and found these appealing colour illustrations:

(I'm not sure why there's a sinister-looking stranger in the background)

As for the poems themselves, they covered cheerful subjects like death, deformity and poverty. Take this, for example:

Not something you'd want to read to your child at bedtime. But in an age in which infant mortality was a common experience, poems like these sought to bring comfort, albeit in a rather maudlin, sentimental fashion.

The poems also hark back to a pre-industrial rural idyll, evoking a world that still exists in the popular imagination: cottages with roses around the door, the hum of bees on a summer's afternoon, the church spire of a distant village, a babbling woodland stream and a carpet of bluebells.

There are no factory chimneys or back to back houses. Young readers may have been deemed able to cope with the grim realities of death and disease, but some subjects were clearly beyond the pale.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Bent Copper

What, you may ask, is so interesting about this 1898 photograph? It's just a Victorian woman crossing a road with a dog.

The answer is that it was taken by Zola, when he fled to London during the Dreyfus Affair. We see lots of photos of authors, but this is the first I can think of that is by one. I've tried to find other examples, but Google has drawn a blank.

I don't know whether Zola employed any domestic staff during his stay in London, but he may have perused these advertisements:

I'm intrigued by the stipulation of "no fringe" in a couple of adverts and the promise of beer in others.  Can anyone enlighten me about the fringe issue? Are fringes a sign of bad character?

Talking of bad characters, another gem from the 1890s I found recently is a memoir of policing in Victorian Manchester. The book looks like a good read, but the main attraction is the author's name:

I don't know if this joke travels well. Do they have "bent coppers" outside the UK?

I expect that Superintendent Bent would have been able to quickly identify the ne'er-do-wells in this 1892 photo. My money's on the boy with the peaked cap, who looks as if he's contemplating an illegal act.

I'm sure the sight of the Superintendent would have been enough to strike fear into the hearts of most criminals. Just look at him:

Only these habitual bad'uns would have been impervious to the long arm of the law:

But in spite of Bent's stern countenance, he was a compassionate man whose sense of justice included a committment to improve the living conditions of the poor. Today, in Trafford, there is a blue plaque that reads:

"Superintendent James Bent established a soup kitchen in this vicinity in 1878 feeding thousands of people and potentially saving them from starvation."

Bent coppers aren't what they used to be.

Finally, a frontispiece illustration from an annual that has nothing to do with the 1890s, but I like the image:

Don't you?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Nuns, Nudes and Nomads

At my old storage unit, I used to be able to gauge what time of the year it was by the volume of mud, flies and excrement. I became resigned to the mud,  gradually accepting that washing my car was a completely futile task. But I never got used to the flies.

For some reason, my car was a fly-magnet and on some days I counted over 50, before giving up in despair. Whenever I opened the car door, several flies would sneak inside and hide, waiting until I'd reached a critical speed on the journey home. I nearly crashed on several occasions, trying to steer with one hand and swat with the other.

My new premises appear to be fly and mud-free. Also, I can now watch the seasons change. This is how the view has altered during the last few weeks:

I'm looking forward to having my lunch breaks by the lake.

During today's trip to work, I found a collection of the Photography Year Book from the late 1950s and early 60s.

As a schoolboy I used to avidly pour through copies of these at the local library (mainly because they contained photographs of naked ladies), but hadn't looked at one for years. I'd forgotten how each collection had the same recurring subjects.

Here are a few of those themes:

1. The Still Life:

I didn't like them when I was 13. I'm not that keen now, although I've learned that if I'm with people in a gallery, I must say something positive about the "form" and "composition" rather than risk exposing myself as a complete philistine. "I like the interplay between the horizontal and verticle leaves..."

2. The Very Wrinkled Old Person:

There was a time when no widow in an Italian hill town could safely go to confession without being assailed by a photographer, who would then bundle her into a pensione and take a series of unflattering portraits. As much as I like the lined face and knowing eyes, it has become something of a cliché.

3. The Naked Lady Landscape Shot:

Yes, it's a nude woman. But she's imitating a natural feature on a beach or in a national park and she's not wearing saucy underwear, so this is a serious photograph. Isn't it?

4. The Special Effects Study:

They say "I achieved this effect by using a 200mm lense at f/5 and a halogen flash at a shutter speed of 1/4..." and all I can think is, was it worth it? Trees at night-time.

5. Some People in a Third World Country:
These pictures were a doddle, once you'd convinced the subjects that the camera wasn't stealing their souls.

The people would either be naked or wearing outlandish clothing, so a successful photograph was almost guaranteed. These days, you'll have to ask the subjects to removed their Nike t-shirts for a few minutes.

6. A Picture of an Animal:

You may say that it's just a picture of a sparrow in the grass, but apparently it's good enough to be published.

Perhaps sparrows are hard to photograph.

8. A Photograph of Anything, As Long As It Features a Nun:

Beyond the usual themes of nuns, nudity, abstract compositions and old people I found a few pictures that I really liked. Here is a small selection:

Nurses praying? I'm very relieved that none of my nurses had to turn to prayer when I was in hospital a couple of months ago.

I enjoyed looking at the work of so many gifted photographers, but what struck me most was how commonplace the exotic images of Chinese peasants, African tribeswomen and Arab nomads appeared, while the once mundane pictures of British miners and city gents in bowler hats seemed extraordinary. How times have changed.